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Between Monks and Monkeys

Jamphel Yeshe's story

INDIA | Saturday, 31 March 2012 | Views [2305]

Jamphel Yeshe's funeral at Namgyal temple.

Jamphel Yeshe's funeral at Namgyal temple.

This story appears in a slightly different form in my new book "The Yeti in the Library" which is on sale in paperback - contact me by email for details - and on Kindle and verious other e-book sites. www.goodreads.com/author/show/6433635.Gill_Winter

Freedom is the foundation of happiness of all living beings. Without freedom, it is like candlelight in the blowing wind, like the course of six million Tibetans. – From the last words of Jamphel Yeshi


Those who have read my book “Between Monks and Monkeys” will be aware of the great respect that I have for the Tibetans, their positive attitude toward life, their non-violent philosophy and their amazing resilience in the face of sixty years of hardship since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950; all of which made me want to return to Dharamshala for a second stint of English teaching.


Today ( 30 March) is a sad day in Dharamshala, because all the Tibetans in the area, as well as many foreign visitors, have been attending the funeral of a young man called Jamphel Yeshi (27) who burned himself to death in Delhi earlier this week.


In the past year there have been thirty one men and women – monks, nuns and ordinary Tibetans who have set fire to themselves in Tibet. They generally die calling for the same things that all Tibetans long for: freedom for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama. The most recent self-immolation in Tibet took place yesterday.


So far the results of the deaths have been threefold – China has further clamped down on the lives of Tibetans within Tibet, especially in the areas where these protests have taken place; media and tourists are not allowed in to the country at the moment, and the rest of the world has taken very little notice.


Jamphel Yeshi took part in a demonstration in Delhi ahead of the visit of Hu Jintao to India to attend the BRICS summit (an alliance consisting of India, China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa.) He set himself alight and ran down the road. Tibetans in the crowd frantically tried to extinguish the flames using Tibetan flags and whatever water they had with them. He was taken to hospital with serious burns and died two days later.


Jamphel Yeshi had not told anyone about what he planned to do, but he left behind him a written statement in which he explained his intentions. He hoped desperately that taking such an action in Delhi would attract more attention to the Tibetan cause than the burnings in Tibet have so far done. He said that different people have different paths in the struggle – some should spend their money to help the fight, some should struggle through education – his fate, he believed, was to sacrifice himself for the future of his country. “Setting this precious human body on fire is the symbol of six million suffering Tibetans for the people of the world, that there are no equal human rights.”


His funeral was a moving affair, starting with a beautiful rendition of the Tibetan national anthem, sung with great feeling by the crowd of many thousand. Prayers were followed by the reading of Jamphel Yeshi’s statement, and speeches by members of the Tibetan Administration.


This was not Jamphel Yeshi’s first act of protest. In Tibet he had been arrested for distributing pamphlets criticising the Chinese regime and had been in prison. He came to India six years ago.


“I have a question for the world’s media,” said one of today’s speakers. “China says that Tibetans are happy in Tibet. In the past year thirty one people have self-immolated in Tibet. The question is, did these people burn themselves because they were happy, or because they were desperate?”


The ceremony ended with a very beautiful Buddhist prayer for the dead, sung and chanted by the thousands who filled the temple building and grounds; the same place where people gather to hear the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Then the coffin, covered in white khatas (ceremonial scarves offered as a mark of respect), was carried back to the waiting ambulance which drove off slowly through McLeod Ganj to the place of cremation. The procession which followed was led by monks and nuns, then students, then everyone else, winding quietly through the shuttered town – all the shops were closed. The brave and decorative flag of Tibet waved above the crowd, flapped from the back of motorbikes and cars, was draped over shoulders and hung across the roadway.


I talked about the events of this week with some of my students the other day. They well understand the desperation that has driven over thirty people to make this extreme form of protest, and they respect those who have done it. Their sadness over these acts is intensified by the fact that out in the rest of the world, it’s not making the news and it’s not making a difference. They wonder what more Tibetans will have to do to move things forward between China and Tibet – even resuming talks would be seen as a small step forward.  I asked if they thought a self-immolation could happen in McLeod Ganj. “Perhaps” they said, although they hoped not. So do I.


The other evening in a restaurant I met a learned Geshe – as you do once in a while in this remarkable place – and asked him what he saw happening in the future in Tibet. “What China needs to do” he said, “Is grant Tibetans religious freedom, so that they can speak the Dalai Lama’s name without fear and practise their Buddhism openly and in peace. That would go a long way toward satisfying Tibetans’ frustration and sense of desperation, and it would be an easy concession for China to make. Then I think these self-immolations would stop.”


If you’re reading this and feeling sad about how slowly the Tibetan struggle seems to be moving forward, you can help by checking the news about Tibet, talking to your friends, telling people about this blog and others like it, urging your government to show a bit more backbone when dealing with China (human rights really are more important than trade) and spreading the word in many different ways.


Thanks for reading this. Please note that I’ve tried to present all the information as accurately as possible, but some explanations were given to me as verbal translations of the Tibetan language funeral service. I am responsible for any mistakes in translation of meaning.


Pö Rangzen! Free Tibet!


PS. I’m posting this blog on 31 March. Yesterday two more monks self-immolated in Tibet.

If you liked this story, you might be interested in reading "Between Monks and Monkeys", written after my first time in Dharamshala in 2010. Available as an Ebook for US$1.99 on Kindle, NOOK, I-tunes 


etc, or as a paperback (email me for details.)

Tags: dharamsala, jamphel yeshi, self-immolation, tibet

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